Image: Flooded homes
Andre Penner  /  AP
These homes in Boa Vista do Gurupi are among the thousands flooded in northeastern Brazil.
updated 5/11/2009 8:04:36 PM ET 2009-05-12T00:04:36

Brazil intensified efforts to get food and other aid to people isolated by severe flooding as waters continued rising Monday in a jungle state nearly the size of Alaska, and the number of homeless rose to 308,000.

At least 40 people have died in the worst northern flooding in at least two decades, and two were still missing Monday after an overloaded canoe capsized over the weekend.

While waters were receding in most states, they were still rising in the jungle state of Amazonas, said Dorothea de Araujo, the Amazon operations manager for the international aid group World Vision.

"The situation is very difficult because the state is so large and there are places you can't get to," she said. "Food and water are priorities because people are drinking contaminated water."

World Vision planned to send boats with supplies and doctors to help about 30 Amazon communities, she said.

New bout of heavy rain
Authorities in the arid northeastern state of Bahia warned that more people could be forced to leave homes because of a new bout of heavy rain.

In the hard-hit northeastern state of Maranhao, some roads were reopened and officials expected to start distributing food, medicine, mattresses and blankets airlifted in by military cargo jet, said Paulo Andrade, logistics coordinator for the state.

"Now we'll be able deliver the main things that are needed: mainly food and potable water," he said.

Images from a helicopter flight over Maranhao showed towns with submerged homes and newly created lakes surrounding them. Volunteers lined up to receive boxes of goods being distributed from a military helicopter.

The number of homeless rose by more than 7,000 to 308,455, the result of an unusual two-month siege of rain that caused widespread flooding last week in parts of 10 of Brazil's 26 states. Several states warned that more people could be forced to flee.

The body of a man thought to have died after a canoe overturned in a town was found Monday, but authorities had not classified it as a flood death pending further investigation. A woman was still missing in that incident.

In the coastal state of Sergipe, an 8-year-old girl was swept away while watching rising waters and a man was killed after floodwaters filled his car, Brazil's Agencia Estado news agency reported Monday.

Sergipe would be the 11th state to be affected by the heavy rains, but attempts to confirm the report were unsuccessful because state civil defense officials did not answer telephones.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said on his weekly radio program Monday that the government was preparing to rebuild damaged infrastructure after making sure food and medicine was delivered to hungry and sickened Brazilians.

Silva, who was born poor in Brazil's impoverished northeast, said he sympathizes with victims and urged officials to quickly assess damages so he can enact an emergency order for federal funding.

He said he had lived in neighborhoods hit by flooding. "I know what it's like to have a house filled with water."

Climate change
The unusually heavy rains have hit a huge region of Brazil stretching from the normally wet Amazon to northeastern states known for extended droughts. Meteorologists blamed an Atlantic Ocean weather system that usually moves on in March but didn't budge this year.

Silva said he worried that climate change could be causing severe weather swings for Latin America's largest nation.

The flooding in the Amazon comes five years after parts of the area experienced a severe drought and environmentalists have said they worry the rain forest and its wild life could be threatened by weather swings.

Meanwhile, a drought in southern Brazil has hurt agriculture and reduced the amount of water flowing over the famed Iguazu waterfalls at the border of Brazil and Argentina.

The floods and droughts drive home the fact "that some things are changing in the world and we need to start looking at them with more attention," Silva said.

A major iron ore export railway that takes the raw ingredient for steel to an Atlantic Ocean port was reopened Monday after more than 500 workers spent days constructing two dikes and using pumps to divert water off the tracks, Companhia Vale do Rio Doce SA said in a statement.

The railway from the Carajas mine in the jungle state of Para had been closed since May 4, said Vale, the world's largest producer of iron ore. The company did not say how many tons of ore were delayed for shipment abroad by the closure.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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